Wei Wei Jeang
Patent Law and Chickens: A Taiwanian-born Attorney Finds Her Center in Texas
This is the third of six articles that will examine lawyers and their work practices by day in contrast to the personal interests that they pursue outside of the office. The goal of this column is to enlighten our readers about the private endeavors of attorneys with whom we come in contact in the profession. It is our hope that this series of articles allows our readers to see the other side of lawyers who manage to pursue unique interests despite their demanding careers. Join us in reading about Wei Wei Jeang, who has a deep love for animals.
“My colleagues are a little surprised when they learn about the birds,” says Wei Wei Jeang, a partner in the intellectual property practice at Haynes and Boone LLP. “A few years ago, the Dallas Morning News ran a high-profile feature on me, and accompanying the article was a photo of me with a chicken in my arms. After that, some people began referring to me as ‘the chicken lady.’ It’s not a title that I’d aspired to, but accurate nonetheless.”
At her home in Parker, Texas—a small town north of Dallas—Jeang, her husband, and two children share four acres with an ever-changing menagerie of dogs, fish, and fowl. Happily, Jeang reads off the living inventory of free-roaming pets: “We have five dogs, over 100 fish in a huge Koi pond, 25 chickens, six peacocks, and a macaw. The chickens began with a dozen Easter chicks, and because there are no pertinent regulations where we live—neighbors down the street have camels and donkeys—we kept the chicks after they grew and then brought home more. Like me, you’d probably be surprised to learn how affectionate poultry can be: I’ve had roosters that follow me around like puppies.”
During the workday at Haynes and Boone’s nearby Richardson, Texas office, Jeang mainly concentrates on the preparation and prosecution side of patent law. Outside of the office, she is more likely to be found with Jack, a green-winged macaw, on her shoulder, or designing and handcrafting jewelry. Around the house, this celebrated intellectual property professional is very hands-on, most happy when surrounded by her family and animals. Between work and home, says Jeang, she has found a balance.
Not so long ago, it was customary for patent lawyers such as Jeang to be referred to, half-jokingly, as the “geeks” of the profession. Besides being required to have an engineering or a hard science degree, these attorneys were perceived as best suited to filing reams of tedious patent paperwork. As intellectual property has become more and more integral to big business, this image has changed. Still, Jeang is tickled by the nerdy stereotype.
The daughter of a Chinese physician and his wife, Jeang was born on Taiwan and remained there until she was 11, when the Mandarin-speaking family migrated to the United States. Eventually, they settled in Chattahoochee, Fla., where with some difficulty Jeang’s already middle-aged father passed the medical board exam in English and resumed his career. For the younger Jeang, absorbing a new language was considerably less difficult. At school, she excelled in academics, particularly math and science.
“Looking back, we really did fit the Asian American stereotype,” says Jeang with amusement. “I’ve always done well in the sciences, and my parents expected me, at the least, to graduate from college with a science degree. My father wanted me to pursue medicine, but because I faint at the sight of blood, I chose computer engineering. Even though we didn’t even have a computer in the house back then, I somehow knew that computers were the key to all future technology.”
Jeang graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (UIUC) in 1986. “At the time, UIUC was one of only three universities in the country to offer a computer engineering degree. It was also in the top third for engineering.”
After college, Jeang remained in Illinois and worked as an engineer in the research department at Caterpillar, the world’s leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment. Two years into her engineering career, she was recruited by Caterpillar’s patent department. Until then, the patent profession was a field that she did not know about.
“The prospect of bringing together engineering and law intrigued me,” says Jeang. “Almost immediately, I joined the patent department at Caterpillar and shortly thereafter sat for the patent bar and passed. The next step was law school. Illinois was too cold, so we [Jeang and her husband] headed south to Dallas, Texas.”
“Engineering and law are a little bit different,” explains Jeang. “But seriously, it seems to me that they require using different parts of the brain. My engineering education didn’t do much to prepare me for law school. So whenever I get the opportunity to speak with engineering students who are interested in a career in patent law, I always recommend that they take more than that one required writing class.”
As a full-time law student at Southern Methodist University, Jeang also worked part-time as a patent agent at Baker Botts LLP. She remembers those days as tough but doable. After receiving her J.D., she remained with the large Texas-based firm in its intellectual property practice.
In 2004, Jeang joined her present employer, Haynes and Boone, one of the largest and fastest-growing law firms in the United States. At Haynes and Boone, her area of practice focuses on the procurement, licensing, and enforcement of patents and trademarks, as well as providing counseling to clients on patent infringement, invalidity, and reexaminations. She works with mostly technical clients, ranging from Fortune 100 companies to solo inventors.
“My clients are varied, covering the spectrum from very high-tech to occasionally very low-tech,” explains Jeang. “I work with complex technologies like telecom, computer network technologies, and computer hardware and software, but I also patent ornamental designs like you find with shoes or furniture. I once had a client who had the idea of making tennis balls into hand puppets by cutting a slit for a mouth and adding on hair and eyes. My work is never boring.”
“I try to put myself in the client’s position,” she continues. “For a start-up tech company, the IP is their only asset so it’s very important for them to guard that asset with patent protection. A new start-up needs a corporate lawyer to help establish the business entity and a patent attorney to help them protect the idea. When I have a client that is small, or fairly large but without an in-house attorney, I do my best to help them anticipate any upcoming issues.”
Since entering the legal profession almost 15 years ago, Jeang has noticed many changes, including an increase in Asian American attorneys. “In the past, Asian American immigrant parents pressured their children to pursue careers in medicine, engineering, and accounting,” notes Jeang. “More recently, these parents have become more willing to grant their children some autonomy in selecting their own paths and are allowing them to go after careers where their talents and interests lie. They understand that their children want the same type of freedoms accorded to their peers. Consequently, it seems there are more young Asian American attorneys at law firms.”
Jeang is not currently involved in a formal mentoring program; nevertheless, as a well-known Asian American attorney in the Dallas area, she frequently gives advice, particularly regarding patent law, to young Asian American attorneys, law school students, and undergraduates. She is a past president of the Dallas Asian American Bar Association, and currently chairs the diversity task force for the Texas State Bar Association Intellectual Property Section.
Looking back, Jeang recalls growing up with a family dog and finches in a birdcage. She also recalls parents who were quick to say “no” when she wanted to bring home another animal. “As an adult, there’s no one to stop me,” laughs Jeang. “Now I can have as many pets as I want.”
Occasionally on the family’s compound, a baby chick dies or a pet emu or chicken is killed by a wild bobcat or coyote, but according to Jeang, being exposed to the cycles of life is a learning experience for her children. Not only does Jeang credit the animals with helping to make her family into a tightly knit unit, but she also believes her cast of furry, feathered, and scaly friends serves as her own unyielding, life-affirming source of rejuvenation.
Are any additions to the menagerie in the works? “We’re thinking about a llama,” says Jeang. “But we’re a little concerned about the spitting.” DB
Patrick Folliard is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.
From the May/June 2007 issue of Diversity & The Bar®